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Redeeming the wolf: a story of persecution, loss and rediscovery

By the Open Graves, Open Minds Project

For this Halloween blog post special, the Open Graves, Open Minds Project explores whether everything you’ve heard about the big bad wolf is true. From folklore and fairy tales to conservation find out how the wolf is perceived today.

Halloween is here. The nights draw in. Imagine a Gothic landscape: the outline of mountains against an inky sky, in the distance you see a candle flickering in the window of a derelict castle, and somewhere a wolf howls. Can you hear it? Are you afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Wolves haunt the human imagination. They are synonymous with horror and the Gothic, threatening us from the wilderness whilst their monstrous cousin, the werewolf stalks our cities. Wolves are, to quote Dracula, ‘Children of the Night’. Wolves, once native to Britain, have been hunted to extinction. Yet, in the twenty-first century, this view has changed. The conversation in the UK today regarding wolves is about reintroduction; what was once lost has been found again.

Our Being Human event, Redeeming the Wolf: A Story of Persecution, Loss and Rediscovery’ leads the audience through the stories which surround the wolf. This event showcases some recent research from the Open Graves, Open Minds Project, which is dedicated to examining narratives of the fantastic, the folkloric, the fabulous, and the magical.

Most recently our research has led us to creatures that shift from animal to human, especially werewolves. This opens up questions about animality and humanity, what it is to be human, what (if anything) is lost by becoming what we are, and how myths and fictions engage with all this in different cultures. We open with an exploration of lupophobia, the hatred of the wolf which predicated its destruction in Britain and much of Western Europe.

Stories of preternaturally rapacious wolves transformed them into monsters. The image of the monstrous wolf was consolidated by the medieval church and the wolf became synonymous with the Devil. The stories travelled to the New World where the destruction of wolves reached its zenith. From lupophobia, we turn to literature, specifically the Gothic, and the power of fantasy. Our research in this area unpicks the complex depiction of the wolf. Werewolves may reflect the most violent face of both the wolf and mankind but they also increasingly evoke feelings of desire. With the rise of paranormal romance novels, werewolves have become lovers not killers.

And what of the domestic wolf? Humans have been enthralled by stories of children raised by wolves for centuries. These accounts may be mythical but they challenge the assumption that the wolf is always dangerous. Rather they hold a mirror to human society, suggesting that there is something we can learn from these animals. Love, sexuality and monstrosity are at the heart of many of the fairy tales which feature the wolf and other beastly beings. Fairy tales are our earliest introduction to this creature. Analysing the presence of the animal in these childhood tales asks us to face the ‘beast within’.

Finally, we face the loss of this creature. As the industrial revolution forever changed the face of the British landscape, myths of the last wolves in Britain depicted a romanticised past in which the natural world had not been damaged by human progress. We end, then, with a new vision of the wolf – no longer monstrous, just misunderstood. Through the final talks, including one from the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, we find a new image of the wolf.

What does the future hold for this wolf? Will we hear the wolf’s howl once more? Or is it impossible to overcome our fear? Can we ever kill the Big Bad Wolf? We may not be able to find the wolf in the semi-wilds of Britain but by following its trails through the deep, dark woods, stopping by the way to visit grandma with Little Red Riding Hood, talking to people who meet wolves every day, and confronting the monstrous Big Bad Wolf, this event will make our audience question how they perceive this maligned creature.

Following the talks, we will open up the discussion to reflect on how individuals have come to their own idea of the wolf. By the end of the session, we will have a clearer sense of what it is to be wolf, but concomitantly we will also have to acknowledge what it is to be human.